Editing is thinking: An interview with David Ball

I first met David Ball a few years ago, while working on a story for my employer, The Patriot-News, about how comics were being used in high school and college classrooms. Luckily for me, Ball just happened to be teaching a class on the subject at the nearby Dickinson College. Ball was kind enough to return the favor and invite me to speak to his comics class when he taught it again a few semesters later.

Fast forward to today, where Ball is co-editor, along with Martha Kuhlman, of the new book from the University of Mississippi Press, The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is A Way of Thinking, a collection of essays by noted comics scholars like Jeet Heer about the seminal Acme cartoonist.

Knowing Ball lived and worked next door (relatively speaking), it seemed silly for me not to get in touch with him and see if he was up for an interview. Thankfully, he was eager to talk about the book.

Why Ware? What is it about him and his comics that you feel justify a book of this nature?

Unlike many of our contributors in the collected volume, I came to Ware’s work very late and not as a dedicated reader of comics but rather as a scholar of American literature. I had known that fascinating things were going on in contemporary comics for a while, but reading Jimmy Corrigan knocked the wind out of me. The book seemed so versed in the American literary genealogy of Melville and Faulkner and Nabokov with which I was familiar, but was using techniques, referring to other comics, and stretching my brain in ways that were wholly new to me. I knew that I would need to educate myself rapidly to catch up — a still ongoing process — and that colleagues in history, art history, and comparative literature, as well as comics commentators and enthusiasts could help me better understand what I was reading. Ware quickly became a discovery I could share with others and a way I could talk to, and learn from, scholars and readers whose interests were different than mine. That kind of intellectual dialogue is what this book of essays is about, and I hope that readers of the volume will similarly find ideas that are new to them, and share in that sense of discovery. Every time I reread one of Ware’s comics, or get my hands on a new fragment of “Rusty Brown” or “Building Stories,” I find something new and unexpected. That sense of discovery is a rare thing in any art form, and I’m convinced it’s why we’ll still be reading Ware fifty years from now.

What is it about Ware's comics that appeals personally to you? How did you discover his work?

Above all else, I admire Ware’s simultaneous ambition and his emotional range. Readers often comment on his experimentalism and, in places, conspicuous difficulty, but it’s astonishing that he pursues such complex and intricate narratives while still being able to generate meaningful stories and resonant characters. I think Ware’s detractors often miss this aspect of his comics. His ability to inhabit multiple characters’ viewpoints — ranging from a frat boy like Jordan Lint to the complex maturity of the female protagonist of “Building Stories,” while sensing what their lives might have in common — is a rare gift.

That said, I don’t mind being challenged as a reader, and I find the most rewarding authors and artists are those who ask us to think. I relish the thrill of discovery when making a genealogical link between characters in Jimmy Corrigan or seeing the patterns that guide the composition of a single page in Quimby the Mouse. When the serial New Yorker covers of Ware’s 2006 “Thanksgiving” series came out, the back issues of the magazine sold out in days and I went newsstand to newsstand, even bartering Princeton University’s library copy for a double I already had. When Ware later came out with the two collected editions of that series, the “Upper East Side” and “Lower East Side,” I was both abashed and awed that he could make fun of this collecting impulse, while also recognizing that same impulse as the force that guides us to construct fictional narratives and put the pieces together as readers and enthusiasts. It felt like falling down the intellectual rabbit hole.

What was the initial conception of the book? Who came up with the original idea, you or Martha Kuhlman? How did the two of you meet and decide to work on this project together?

I started working up my thoughts on “Thanksgiving” into an essay (one not collected in this book, but in another forthcoming University Press of Mississippi volume titled The Rise of the American Comics Artist) and realized how much I wanted to be in conversation with other scholars who shared my interests. I put out a call for papers and organized a roundtable at the Modern Language Association, the national conference of language and literature professors that was being held in Chicago that year. The five scholars who participated in that roundtable — Benjamin Widiss, Isaac Cates, Matthew Godbey, Peter Sattler, and Martha — formed the backbone of The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking. That conversation is one of the most energizing critical debates I’ve had as an academic, demonstrating the narrowness of my own horizons and pointing toward exactly how much could be learned by a careful and thoughtful analysis of Ware’s comics.

The University Press of Mississippi, which I’m sure many of your readers will already be familiar with for their long line of comics research and scholarship, got in touch with me and thoughts of a bigger collection began to take shape. Martha immediately shared my vision for a book-length project, and her background as a comparative literature scholar and her already long resume of comics scholarship — she’s published on Spiegelman’s Maus, Czech graphic novels, and Karasik and Mazzucchelli’s adaptation of City of Glass, among many other topics — made her a perfect fit as a co-editor. Having two editors made the scope of the project, fifteen essays total, possible in only two years, and the book is very much a collaborative project. We were constantly bouncing ideas off one another, weighing the relative merits of different contributions, and putting the collection as a whole into its final shape. We must have sent twenty-five drafts of the co-written introduction back and forth by the time we were ready to go to press, and the strength of the volume as a whole is because of this collaborative effort.

We made a conscious decision to choose essays that came at Ware’s comics from different perspectives and to develop a choral approach that still allowed for disagreement and debate among individual essayists. I feel very fortunate to have worked with, and learned from, such a talented scholar and writer as Martha.

Can you talk a little bit more about the selection process for the book? How did you go about deciding what essays to put in and what to leave out? Were there certain critics or scholars you sought out in particular?

With the roundtable contributors assembled, we put out a general call for papers and began thinking of the shape of volume as a whole, with the aim of representing as many views and critical positions as possible. We did seek out an art historian, Katherine Roeder, who had just edited an issue of American Art on comics (she beautifully analyzes Ware’s four-page history of art that he originally did for the Whitney Biennial) and we brought Jeet Heer into the fold to talk about his work with Ware on the Frank King Walt and Skeezix reprints and Ware’s relationship to early 20th-century comics more generally. We’d first envisioned the volume as multidisciplinary in order to reach as broad an audience as possible, and essays like these really added to the range and depth of the entire volume. I’d admired an essay Daniel Worden wrote in Modern Fiction Studies on McSweeney’s 13 and I was persuasive enough to get him to submit a wonderful piece on Lost Buildings, the DVD collaboration Ware did with Ira Glass and “This American Life,” about preservation efforts in Chicago to rescue Louis Sullivan’s architecture.

I had the good fortune to be on a panel with Joanna Davis-McElligatt on the topic of race in the novels of William Faulkner, and after the panel was over, we began excitedly talking about Ware’s account of race and immigration in Jimmy Corrigan. That conversation turned into a wide-ranging, ambitious, and incisive chapter on the subject that has completely changed my understanding of the novel.

Other contributors emerged in the call for papers, including Peter Sattler’s essay on memory in “Building Stories” (Peter is also the consummate collector among us, and his encyclopedic knowledge of Ware’s work was invaluable throughout) and Georgiana Banita’s chapter on the ways in which time is slowed down in Ware’s comics. I was especially impressed by a number of graduate students who submitted essays, and I’m convinced they’ll be among the next generation of important comics scholars, benefitting as they are from the strength of what’s being written and published in the field. Jacob Brogan at Cornell University wrote a piece on Ware’s ambivalence toward the superhero genre, Margaret Fink-Berman at the University of Chicago talks about how disability is represented in “Building Stories,” and Shawn Gilmore at the University of Illinois excavates how Jimmy Corrigan inhabits the history of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. That such talented scholars are emerging from some of the best grad schools in the country speaks well of the future of comics scholarship.

Did you have an idea of how you wanted to organize the book from the beginning into the different sections or did it develop over time as you worked on the book?

A little bit of both. There were major issues we couldn’t avoid — Ware’s accounts of American and comics history, for example — but we wanted contributors’ interests to guide their essays as well. So, for example, Matt Godbey writes at great length about the process of gentrification in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, not something I’d expected to be a focus of the volume, but it brings to life an aspect of “Building Stories” that few readers will have considered. Martha and I used our own essays to both speak to our own interests and tackle themes that had gone unaddressed in the other contributors’ pieces. Martha writes about the kinship between Ware’s more experimental writing and avant-garde French comics artists of the OuBaPo (L’Ouvoir de Bande Dessinée Potentielle) and I talk about Ware’s tendency toward apology and self-abnegation, both in his comics and his self-presentation in interviews and elsewhere.

We also wanted to account for the heterogeneity of Ware’s publications outside of the work that will be most familiar to his readers: Benjamin Widiss writes a brilliant essay on the early Quimby the Mouse strips, Peter Sattler analyses some comics that have yet to be collected in readily available form, and Marc Singer offers a critique of Ware’s role as a anthologist of contemporary comics.

In the introduction, we talk about his role as curator, collector, and essayist, wanting to offer as full a picture as we can of his contributions to the medium and the profession as a whole. That said, compelling connections between essays frequently emerged that we couldn’t have possibly foreseen. Jeet Heer’s, Jacob Brogan’s, Marc Singer’s, and my essays begin a critical debate about how Ware situates himself in an emerging comics canon in ways that surprised both of us as we put the entire collection together, while essays with as different topics as the role of time, disability, and memory (Georgiana’s, Margaret’s, and Peter’s respectively) all theorized the ways in which Ware is drawn toward representing the quotidian, even banal, world of everyday actions and events. Of course, these larger themes emerge out of Ware’s own interests, but it was illuminating to watch them present themselves as the book took its final shape.

How did the editing process go? Was there a lot of back and forth between you and the contributors or not so much?

We asked a great deal of our contributors, offering what we felt was a very rigorous editing process to allow for sharper and clearer arguments as well as to avoid too much overlap between essays. We also wanted the book to be easily accessible to fans and enthusiasts while still having the academic rigor expected by scholars, a challenging tightrope that I think we managed to walk. Our contributors were very patient with us and willing to engage in this kind of intellectual dialog, the same kind of dialog we hope the book will generate more widely among scholars and fans alike. The result is, I hope, engaging and determinedly jargon-free. Editing itself is not a particularly glamorous endeavor, but even some of the more mind-numbing tasks (read: compiling the index) yielded unexpected insights.

It should be said that any project like this is a group effort: the talents of the contributors themselves, the teamwork of the editors, the suggestions of outside evaluators, the editorial and design teams at the University Press of Mississippi … I could go on. I also had a cohort of very talented Dickinson College students who served as readers offering the perspective of non-specialists, letting us know at each stage when our arguments were unclear or the writing opaque. It was very gratifying to see all of these efforts come together at the end.

One of the things that struck me about the book was that not every essay was very laudatory. Marc Singer's, for example, was downright harsh. Was that a deliberate attempt on your part to bring some "balance" to the book?

We wanted to avoid either unstinting praise of unthinking critiques of Ware’s work; you can find plenty of both online already. Marc’s argument is about Ware’s role as an anthologist of contemporary comics, and he takes issue, quite forcefully, with what he sees a limiting set of choices, especially in the Best American Comics volume that Ware edited. I don’t want to speak for Marc, but I think he’d be the first to tell you that Ware’s work is worth reading and considering (he actually stated as much in an interesting blog post he just published, talking about his experience teaching Jimmy Corrigan in the undergraduate classroom), and I understand the force of his objections as, in part, a measure of the strength of Ware’s own position.

That different scholars can arrive at very different positions about the same comics strikes me as one of the measures of Ware’s accomplishment, and Martha and I didn’t want to foreclose what we hope will be a very generative debate for the future of a comics canon and Ware’s place within it. For my part, I’m hesitant to state that comics can only be one thing—entertainment culture or fine art or historical record—and part of their power, in my estimation, remains the ways in which they can speak to multiple audiences simultaneously.

I’ve never understood the anxiety some comics enthusiasts express toward scholarly work, as if comics would be “spoiled” somehow by the sustained intellectual attention paid to them. I’ve always believed that loving something and thinking critically about it are mutually reinforcing activities, and I hope this book can change a few minds in that regard. At the same time, this isn’t a 288-page swoon over Ware’s genius; I’m not convinced that mere hagiography would produce interesting conversations about the work itself. If I didn’t think Ware was among the most significant and powerful artists and writers working today, I wouldn’t have completed this book. The comics are brilliant, and though every essay in the volume might not sing in the same key, each contributor reveals another layer to the densely packed meanings in these comics.

I know you've been in contact with Ware since the book came out. What has his reaction been? Did he have any input or response in general to the book while you were working on it?

I first contacted Ware when I put together the MLA roundtable in 2007, and he expressed surprise, embarrassment, and unstinting kindness. At the time he wrote: “I must say, I'm not sure whether to be pleased or terrified that my stuff would fall under the scrutiny of people who are clearly educated enough to know better. I’d imagine that your roundtable will quickly dissolve into topics of much more pressing interest, or that you’ll at least be able to adjourn early for a place in line at lunch, etc.” That still cracks me up. Martha and I were very careful to try to bother him as little as possible when writing this book, although he very generously answered more questions than it was probably fair to ask of him at the time.

As for the contents of the volume itself, Ware himself had no input, although it probably goes without saying that the influence of his artistic and intellectual vision is palpable on every page of the book. Our focus is on the comics rather than the creator (a bias, no doubt, due in part to our training as literary scholars), and while we offer a brief biography in the introduction, most of our time is spent talking about what’s taking place in the pages of Ware’s books. However, I can’t say enough about Ware’s generosity, particularly with the rights to reproduce the images in the book (we have over 50 of them, 20 of them in color). As too many scholars and comics creators know, copyright law can really cripple scholarly and creative work alike, and many of my colleagues have horror stories about the prohibitive costs exacted by the executors of literary estates and archives. Ware not only gave us the permissions, but sent us the original files to ensure their reproduction would be on the highest quality, and the highest praise he could give us was when he said that he thought the finished book looked great. I received a very kind email from him just last week congratulating us and saying how it encouraged him in his work. That might just be flattery, but it made the whole process worthwhile, and I similarly hope that for readers of The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking, the experience of seeing these arguments will make them want to dive back into Ware’s comics and reread them. It’s certainly been fun for me as both a scholar and a fan to watch these ideas take hold, and I’m anxious to watch the response to them begin to unfold as they are taken up and discussed more widely.

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